The government says it wants to be tough on illegal immigration. It claims to be creating an environment where people who are here illegally no longer find it practical to fit in unobtrusively with day-to-day life in our communities. The idea is that they are then far more likely to return to their own countries. As a part of this, the Immigration Act 2014 brought in the ‘Right to Rent’ regulations. These oblige anyone renting out a home or part of their home to make sure their tenant has a legal right to live in the UK.
Landlords aren’t expected to be immigration experts and the checks they should make on a prospective tenant are straightforward. There’s official advice online and a genuinely useful helpline if support is needed. A landlord who acts in good faith but is duped by someone here illegally is very unlikely to face any sanction.
The penalties, though, for failing to carry out a proper check or to knowingly accommodate someone here illegally can be severe, from a £3,000 civil penalty per occupant up to unlimited fines or even prison. So far, so good. However the problem is that the regulations seem to be barely enforced. There are large areas of the country with high populations of illegal immigrants where arrests and detentions may be happening, but no prosecutions or punitive action of any sort is being taken against those who deliberately and illegally provide them with housing. Why?
Once someone has been detained by the police or UK Border Agency, the authorities may question that person, inspect their personal possessions, any documents they might be carrying and their mobile phones. It shouldn’t tax the police too much to work out where someone, even if they are unco-operative, who is already in their custody has been staying. It should then be easy to establish that the owner of that accommodation didn’t take the right steps to comply with ‘Right to Rent’ rules and should be considered for prosecution.
But that just isn’t happening. According to the leading trade organisation, the Residential Landlords Association, only 91 landlords were prosecuted in the first year that the rules were in fully in place. It’s difficult to match this figure precisely against the number of people arrested for immigration offences who have been in the country longer than the few days necessary to procure at least some sort of roof over their heads. People you can therefore assume have a landlord who is acting illegally. There must be thousands in this category. Surely there should be some sort of correlation between the number of people detained and the numbers of landlords prosecuted for housing them? But there isn’t.
It is still a fairly new law, but the relevant agencies have had time to get used to it and the picture seems to be barely improving. I’ve spoken to people from various services who have been involved in raiding the homes of illegal immigrants whose landlords have clearly broken the law. Yet those officials have told me that they have never been given instructions by their seniors to look at initiating ‘Right-to-Rent’ prosecutions.
Mainstream legitimate landlords, who of course easily make up the majority of landlords, are generally aware of and compliant with the rules and there is now some (albeit weak) evidence that some illegals are giving up and going home as they struggle to find housing. But legitimate landlords are not the problem. There are plenty of other property owners who are happy to cram desperate people into squalid accommodation that can be insanitary, overcrowded and even dangerous. Safety standards or the various housing regulations meant to protect tenants can be completely ignored. People are packed into attics and basements, garden sheds or have to share beds with semi-strangers by sleeping in shifts. The owners are not deterred by the notional penalties, calculating that the risks are negligible.
If the Right to Rent rules were used properly, they could give officials a way in, literally and metaphorically, to that hidden world and some terrible landlords could be driven out of business. This would not only help immigration enforcement but could also help protect large numbers of people who are here legitimately but who have very marginal lifestyles and whose need for affordable housing has made them easy targets for exploitation.
Often, not enforcing a law encourages disrespect for law in general. When anti-social people realise they can get away with ignoring one set of rules, they normally ask what they can get away with next. If Right to Rent was employed properly, it could be an effective tool in tackling illegal immigration and would almost certainly attract public support. The government should have the confidence to use it.